Fun with friends in the great outdoors can make children physically healthier and more social. According to new research from the American Heart Association, children who spend time with their friends in an inviting outdoor space are less likely to be sedentary and inactive.
The recent study was led by QUALITY, a research group based in Quebec that studies childhood obesity. QUALITY analyzed neighborhood characteristics in correlation with the individual characteristics of the children who lived there.
Factors studied included how often children received exercise and how often children spent time with their friends.
Up to 431 children between the ages of eight and 10 were studied for 10 hours a day, four days a week. Researchers then analyzed the same children, although a smaller group, two years later.
Researchers found that one-fifth of the children in the initial group were excessively sedentary. This means the kids spent approximately half of their time performing low-energy activities like watching television.
What’s more, 68% of the same kids were physically inactive. This means they weren’t receiving the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day.
These numbers coincide with the two-thirds of parents who say they worry their children spend too much time on electronic devices.
“The more days kids spent doing things with their friends, the less sedentary they were,” said lead author Tracie Barnett. “It’s tough to get kids to be more active, so maybe we can focus on helping them be less sedentary.”
The participants’ excessive sedentary and physically inactive behavior increased as they aged. By ages 10 to 12, 56% of the children were excessively sedentary whereas 79% were physically inactive.
“We tend to think of sedentary behavior and physical activity as the opposite sides of a coin but in fact, they’re not quite linked in that way,” said Dr. Stephen Daniels. Daniels works as the chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Kids really like being involved with their friends and being involved with their families,” said Daniels. “If those engagements can focus on not being sedentary but being active, that’s a huge plus.”
Children are less likely to be inactive when they’re closer to parks and walking paths, according to a study by the American Heart Association. But kids were still likely to spend time indoors when their parents considered their neighborhood to be unsafe.
Sedentary lifestyles for children can lead to childhood obesity and poor mental health. In fact, time spent out in nature with friends, animals, and pets has been shown to increase a child’s empathy. There’s a reason why there are more than 75 million pet dogs in the United States.
Nature has also been proven to reduce the heart rate, higher heart rate variability, and reduce stress. In fact, one study by Stanford University found that a 50-minute nature walk can reduce anxiety, rumination, and negative feelings. Even 69% of surveyed Americans have reported that the smell and sight of flowers can improve their mood.
However, being out in the great outdoors isn’t quite enough. For kids to truly benefit from nature, they need to have fun.
“Fun and play should be emphasized,” said Barnett. “Things should not be overly scheduled and programmed: let creativity and imagination lead the way.”